Criterion Theatre

Last updated

Criterion Theatre
The Criterion Theatre in 2007
Criterion Theatre
Address Jermyn Street
London, SW1
United Kingdom
Coordinates 51°30′35″N0°08′03″W / 51.509778°N 0.134056°W / 51.509778; -0.134056 Coordinates: 51°30′35″N0°08′03″W / 51.509778°N 0.134056°W / 51.509778; -0.134056
Public transit Underground no-text.svg Piccadilly Circus
OwnerCriterion Theatre Trust (lease)
Designation Grade II*
Type West End theatre
Capacity 588 on 3 levels
Production 2:22 A Ghost Story
Opened21 March 1874;148 years ago (1874-03-21)
Architect Thomas Verity

The Criterion Theatre is a West End theatre at Piccadilly Circus in the City of Westminster, and is a Grade II* listed building. [1] It has a seating capacity of 588.


Building the theatre

In 1870, the caterers Spiers and Pond began development of the site of the White Bear, a seventeenth-century posting inn. The inn was located on sloping ground stretching between Jermyn Street and Piccadilly Circus, known as Regent Circus. [2] A competition was held for the design of a concert hall complex, with Thomas Verity winning out of 15 entries. He was commissioned to design a large restaurant, dining rooms, ballroom, and galleried concert hall in the basement. The frontage, which was the façade of the restaurant, showed a French Renaissance influence using Portland stone.

After the building work began, it was decided to change the concert hall into a theatre. The composers' names, which line the tiled staircases, were retained and can still be seen. The redesign placed the large Criterion Restaurant and dining rooms above the theatre, with a ballroom on the top floor.

When Spiers and Pond applied for a licence to operate, the authorities were unhappy because the theatre was underground and lit by gas, creating the risk of toxic fumes. The Metropolitan Board of Works had to vote twice before the necessary licence was issued, and fresh air had to be pumped into the auditorium to prevent the audience from being asphyxiated. It was not until October 1881, at the Savoy, that the first theatre was lit electrically.

The building was completed in 1873 with the interior decoration carried out by W. B. Simpson & Sons.

Early years

The first production opened on 21 March 1874 under the management of Henry J. Byron & EP Hingston. The programme consisted of An American Lady written and performed by Byron and a piece by W. S. Gilbert, with music by Alfred Cellier, entitled Topsyturveydom . The event apparently did not make much of an impression on Gilbert. In a 1903 letter to Thomas Edgar Pemberton, author of the book on The Criterion, Gilbert wrote: "I am sorry to say that in my mind is an absolute blank to the opening of The Criterion. I never saw Topseyturveydom. If you happen to have a copy of it and could lend it to me for a few hours it might suggest some reminiscences: as it is I don't even know what the piece was about!" [3] Gilbert had, however, been back at the theatre in 1877 with his farce, On Bail (a revised version of his 1874 work, Committed for Trial); in 1881, with another farce, Foggerty's Fairy ; and in 1892, with a comic opera, Haste to the Wedding , with music by George Grossmith (an operatic version of Gilbert's 1873 play, The Wedding March). Haste to the Wedding was a flop, but it introduced the 18-year-old George Grossmith, Jr., the composer's son, to the London stage. [4] The younger Grossmith would go on to become a major star in Edwardian musical comedies. [5]

Charles Wyndham became the manager and lessee in 1875, and under his management the Criterion became one of the leading light comedy houses in London. The first production under the manager was The Great Divorce Case, opening on 15 April 1876. When Wyndham left in 1899 to open his own theatre, The Wyndham's Theatre (and then the New Theatre, now called the Noël Coward Theatre, in 1903) he remained the lessee bringing in various managements and their companies.[ citation needed ]

In March 1883, the theatre closed for alterations demanded by the Metropolitan Board of Works. The pumping of fresh air into the ten-year-old auditorium, some thirty feet below street level, was deemed unsatisfactory. Thomas Verity supervised the alterations (Verity by now had also designed the Comedy Theatre in 1881 and the Empire Theatre in 1882). The new direct access ventilation shaft meant cutting off a considerable portion of the adjoining Criterion Restaurant. New corridors were built, with several new exits. The auditorium was reconstructed and the stage re-equipped. The old dressing rooms were demolished and new ones built. Most importantly, electricity was installed. Dramatic Notes (1884) states "The Criterion Theatre, transformed from a stuffy band-box to a convenient, handsome, and well ventilated house, reopened on April 16". Further alterations and redecorations took place in 1902–03, when the theatre was closed for seven months.[ citation needed ]

20th century

Between the world wars, productions included Musical Chairs with John Gielgud and in 1936, French Without Tears which ran for 1,039 performances and launched the writing career of Terence Rattigan.

During the Second World War, the Criterion was requisitioned by the BBC – as an underground theatre it made an ideal studio safe from the Blitz – and light entertainment programmes were both recorded and broadcast live.

After the war, the Criterion repertoire included avant-garde works such as Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot . The early part of 1956 saw the arrival of Anouilh's popular comedy, The Waltz of the Toreadors , with impressive performances by Hugh Griffith and Beatrix Lehmann. [6]

In the 1970s, the Criterion site was proposed for redevelopment, which caused protest, as people feared the theatre would be lost. In February 1975, the GLC Planning Committee approved the development on the condition that the theatre continued in "full, continuous and uninterrupted use" while the redevelopments took place. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s the argument increased, and the Equity Save London's Theatre Committee organised high-profile demonstrations (campaigners included John Gielgud, Marius Goring, Edward Woodward, Diana Rigg, Robert Morley and Prunella Scales) as they feared that the theatre would still be lost.

In the 1980s, the theatre building was purchased by Robert Bourne, a property tycoon and patron of the arts, and his wife, theatre impresario Sally Greene. The couple set up the Criterion Theatre Trust, a registered charity created to protect the Criterion's future. From 1989 to 1992 the theatre was renovated both in the back and front of the house. During that time, the block that exists today was built around it. After the refurbishment, the Criterion retains a well-preserved Victorian auditorium with an intimate atmosphere. Major productions in the last two decades of the century included Tom Foolery (1980–1981), Can't Pay? Won't Pay! (1981–1983), and the long-running Run for Your Wife (1983–1989).

Recent years

Criterion Theatre in 2007 London Criterion Theatre 2007.jpg
Criterion Theatre in 2007

From 1996 to 2005, the theatre was home to productions of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, notably The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) .[ citation needed ]

From 2006 to 2015, the Criterion hosted the long-running melodrama The 39 Steps , adapted by Patrick Barlow from John Buchan's 1915 novel, which was adapted for film by Alfred Hitchcock (1935).[ citation needed ] In 2016 Mischief Theatre's The Comedy About a Bank Robbery opened. It played its final performance on 15 March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.[ citation needed ] More than a year later, the musical Amélie opened on 20 May 2021 running until 25 September 2021. [7] Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) followed opening on 15 October 2021 running until 6 February 2022. 2:22 A Ghost Story opened on 10 May 2022 and is scheduled to run until 4 September.

Notable productions

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Noël Coward Theatre</span> West End theatre in St. Martins Lane in London, formerly the Albery Theatre

The Noël Coward Theatre, formerly known as the Albery Theatre, is a West End theatre in St. Martin's Lane in the City of Westminster, London. It opened on 12 March 1903 as the New Theatre and was built by Sir Charles Wyndham behind Wyndham's Theatre which was completed in 1899. The building was designed by the architect W. G. R. Sprague with an exterior in the classical style and an interior in the Rococo style.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Gielgud Theatre</span> Theatre in Londons West End since 1906

The Gielgud Theatre is a West End theatre, located on Shaftesbury Avenue, at the corner of Rupert Street, in the City of Westminster, London. The house currently has 986 seats on three levels.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Theatre Royal Haymarket</span> West-End theatre in London, England

The Theatre Royal Haymarket is a West End theatre on Haymarket in the City of Westminster which dates back to 1720, making it the third-oldest London playhouse still in use. Samuel Foote acquired the lease in 1747, and in 1766 he gained a royal patent to play legitimate drama in the summer months. The original building was a little further north in the same street. It has been at its current location since 1821, when it was redesigned by John Nash. It is a Grade I listed building, with a seating capacity of 888. The freehold of the theatre is owned by the Crown Estate.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Arthur Bourchier</span> British actor

Arthur Bourchier was an English actor and theatre manager. He married and later divorced the actress Violet Vanbrugh.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Royal Court Theatre, Liverpool</span> Theatre in Liverpool, England

The Royal Court Theatre is a theatre located at 1 Roe Street in Liverpool, England. The current Royal Court Theatre was opened on 17 October 1938, after fire destroyed its predecessor. It was rebuilt in Art Deco style and soon became Liverpool's premier theatre. The interior of the building has a nautical theme, in line with Liverpool's seafaring traditions. The design of the basement lounge is based on the Cunard liner Queen Mary. There are three viewing levels within the main auditorium: the Stalls, the Grand Circle and the Balcony.

<i>Topsy-Turvy</i> 1999 British film by Mike Leigh

Topsy-Turvy is a 1999 British musical period drama film written and directed by Mike Leigh, starring Allan Corduner as Sir Arthur Sullivan and Jim Broadbent as W.S. Gilbert, along with Timothy Spall, Lesley Manville and Ron Cook. The story concerns the 15-month period in 1884 and 1885 leading up to the premiere of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado. The film focuses on the creative conflict between playwright and composer, and their decision to continue their partnership, which led to their creation of several more Savoy operas.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lilian Baylis</span> English theatrical producer and manager

Lilian Mary Baylis CH was an English theatrical producer and manager. She managed the Old Vic and Sadler's Wells theatres in London and ran an opera company, which became the English National Opera (ENO); a theatre company, which evolved into the English National Theatre; and a ballet company, which eventually became The Royal Ballet.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Prince of Wales Theatre</span> West End theatre in London, England

The Prince of Wales Theatre is a West End theatre in Coventry Street, near Leicester Square in London. It was established in 1884 and rebuilt in 1937, and extensively refurbished in 2004 by Sir Cameron Mackintosh, its current owner. The theatre should not be confused with the former Scala Theatre in London that was known as the Prince of Wales Royal Theatre or Prince of Wales's Theatre from 1865 until its demolition in 1903.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Duchess Theatre</span> Theatre in London, England

The Duchess Theatre is a West End theatre in the City of Westminster, London, located in Catherine Street near Aldwych.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lyceum Theatre, London</span> West End theatre in London

The Lyceum Theatre is a West End theatre located in the City of Westminster, on Wellington Street, just off the Strand in central London. It has a seating capacity of 2,100. The origins of the theatre date to 1765. Managed by Samuel Arnold, from 1794 to 1809 the building hosted a variety of entertainments including a circus produced by Philip Astley, a chapel, and the first London exhibition of waxworks by Madame Tussauds. From 1816 to 1830, it served as The English Opera House. After a fire, the house was rebuilt and reopened on 14 July 1834 to a design by Samuel Beazley. The building is unique in that it has a balcony overhanging the dress circle. It was built by the partnership of Peto & Grissell. The theatre then played opera, adaptations of Charles Dickens novels and James Planché's "fairy extravaganzas", among other works.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Alfred Cellier</span> 19th-century English composer and conductor

Alfred Cellier was an English composer, orchestrator and conductor.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Seymour Hicks</span>

Sir Edward Seymour Hicks, better known as Seymour Hicks, was a British actor, music hall performer, playwright, actor-manager and producer. He became known, early in his career, for writing, starring in and producing Edwardian musical comedy, often together with his famous wife, Ellaline Terriss. His most famous acting role was that of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Gaiety Theatre, London</span> Former West End theatre in London, England

The Gaiety Theatre was a West End theatre in London, located on Aldwych at the eastern end of the Strand. The theatre was first established as the Strand Musick Hall in 1864 on the former site of the Lyceum Theatre. In 1868, it became known as the Gaiety Theatre and was, at first, known for music hall and then for musical burlesque, pantomime and operetta performances. From 1868 to the 1890s, it had a major influence on the development of modern musical comedy.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">W. S. Gilbert</span> English dramatist, poet and illustrator (1836–1911)

Sir William Schwenck Gilbert was an English dramatist, librettist, poet and illustrator best known for his collaboration with composer Arthur Sullivan, which produced fourteen comic operas. The most famous of these include H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and one of the most frequently performed works in the history of musical theatre, The Mikado. The popularity of these works was supported for over a century by year-round performances of them, in Britain and abroad, by the repertory company that Gilbert, Sullivan and their producer Richard D'Oyly Carte founded, the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. These Savoy operas are still frequently performed in the English-speaking world and beyond.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Violet Vanbrugh</span>

Violet Vanbrugh, born Violet Augusta Mary Barnes, was an English actress with a career that spanned more than 50 years. Despite her many successes, her career was overshadowed by that of her more famous sister Irene Vanbrugh.

Gay Soper is an English actress. She is perhaps best known for her performance in the musical Godspell in 1971, as well as Mme. Thenardier on the Complete Symphonic Recording of Les Misérables. She also performed all the voices for The Flumps, a famous children's TV series in Britain, and created the role of Mrs Bennett in Bernard J. Taylor's musical version of Pride and Prejudice.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Frank Wyatt</span>

Frank Wyatt was an English actor, singer, theatre manager and playwright.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Eric Lewis (actor)</span>

Frederic Lewis Tuffley, better known by his stage name, Eric Lewis, was an English comedian, actor and singer. In a career spanning five decades, he starred in numerous comedies and in a few musical comedy hits, but he is probably best remembered today as the understudy to George Grossmith in the Gilbert & Sullivan comic operas of the 1880s who left the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company just in time to give Henry Lytton his big break.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Harold Pinter Theatre</span> West End theatre in London, England

The Harold Pinter Theatre, known as the Comedy Theatre until 2011, is a West End theatre, and opened on Panton Street in the City of Westminster, on 15 October 1881, as the Royal Comedy Theatre. It was designed by Thomas Verity and built in just six months in painted (stucco) stone and brick. By 1884 it was known as simply the Comedy Theatre. In the mid-1950s the theatre underwent major reconstruction and re-opened in December 1955; the auditorium remains essentially that of 1881, with three tiers of horseshoe-shaped balconies.

Tim Goodchild is a set and costume designer from Great Britain.


  1. Historic England (5 February 1970). "Criterion Theatre (1265753)". National Heritage List for England . Retrieved 9 October 2014.
  2. Wheatley, Henry B. Round About Piccadilly and Pall Mall, London: Smith Elder (1870), p. 45
  3. Pemberton, T. Edgar. Sir Charles Wyndham: a Biography. London: Hutchinson and Co., 1904
  4. Stedman 1996 , p. 287
  5. Lamb, Andrew. "From Pinafore to Porter: United States-United Kingdom Interactions in Musical Theater, 1879–1929", American Music, Vol. 4, No. 1, British-American Musical Interactions (Spring, 1986), pp. 34–49, University of Illinois Press, retrieved 24 November 2015
  6. Lytton's Theatre and Concert Hall Seating Plans, 1962–1963. Covent Garden, London: Dancing Times. 1962. OCLC   911829528.
  7. Wood, Alex (20 March 2021). "Amélie musical to transfer to the West End for socially distanced run from May". Archived from the original on 30 March 2021. Retrieved 30 March 2021.
Works cited

Further reading